The P.E.O. Sisterhood

From WBro Damien, Editor Devotion News

The P.E.O. Sisterhood is an inspirational sorority operating in the United States and Canada.

You may never have heard of PEO, but it is a notable, noble and substantial sorority, currently claiming 230,000 members and to date (2017) has given more than $304 million (USD) to over 102,000 women from the organization's six philanthropic educational funds. In addition, 8,500 women have graduated from Cottey College operated by PEO.

PEO Sisterhood

Just as Freemasonry is a Fraternity (Latin, Frater; Brother) consisting of a solely male membership, so PEO is a sorority (Latin, Soror; Sister), a group consisting solely of women. For many, both words will make people think of student-based groups in American Universities and the PEO shares a common academic root, but PEO became a community rather than college based sorority– however it retained its strong links with women’s education. PEO was originally born within in the philosophy and institutions of the Methodist Church which actively promoted Women's Rights and Education in America during the 1800s. Today, the membership is wide and does not discriminate based on ethnicity or religion. Although always officially non-sectarian, PEO has evolved over recent generations into a deliberately diverse, community-based organization with nearly 6,000 chapters in each of the 50 United States, District of Columbia and in six Canadian provinces.

PEO describes itself as “a philanthropic organization where women CELEBRATE the advancement of women; EDUCATE women through scholarships, grants, awards, loans, and stewardship of Cottey College and MOTIVATE women to achieve their highest aspirations.” Sounds good to me !

Founded four years after the American Civil War (1861-1865) in a world which denied many woman educational opportunities, political and legal rights and freedoms, PEO seems to have been a powerful advocate for education of females and continues as such to this day. I am sure many would write of it as a proto-feminist organisation and no doubt it has been important in empowering multitudes of women through financial and emotional support, particularly when obtaining an education.

PEO’s first Chapter was formed on 21 January 1869 by seven friends attending Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. It is the second sorority to be founded in the U.S.A. The Sisterhood began after some of the seven girls were asked to join America’s first sorority; I. C. Sorosis, organized in Mount Pleasant a month earlier, and they would not join without the others. I. C. Sorosis, later became the sorority Pi Beta Phi (ΠΒΦ), and like PEO, still operates today. The founding members were Mary Allen [later Mary Stafford] (1848–1927), Ella Stewart (1848–94), Alice Bird [later Alice Babb] (1850–1926), Hattie Briggs [later Hattie Bousquet] (1849–77), Franc Roads [later Franc Elliott] (1852–1924), Alice Virginia Coffin (1848–88), and Suela Pearson [later Suela Penfield] (1851–1920). Historian Fran Becque says Alice Bird Babb was the only PEO founder to be continuously involved in PEO and that she was also the first founder to take the oath of initiation and was PEO’s first President.

My writing on PEO is fraught with the same dangers as non-Freemasons writing on Freemasonry, particularly because PEO seems to have kept its “secrets” more effectively than us, but its focus on fellowship, mutual support and the education of girls and women seems clear in the material examined.

What PEO actually stands for is a great mystery, known only to initiates. Indeed PEO does seem to have a ceremonial component but its specifics remain unknown to the uninitiated. PEO itself says “Membership in P.E.O. is by invitation but is not secret. Meetings are opened with prayers and with inspirational readings chosen by members, but P.E.O. meetings and activities do not reference, require or promote any particular religion or religious practice. While meetings do follow a structured agenda, these meetings and activities do not in any way involve religious rites and therefore do not meet the definition of 'ritualistic'.” Sounds familiar.

In 2008, the Sisterhood indicated that "P.E.O." now publicly stands for "Philanthropic Educational Organization". However, the Sisterhood acknowledges that "P.E.O." originally had a different meaning that continues as "reserved for members only", and so the public meaning is not the only one. Earlier in 2005, the Sisterhood unveiled a new logo and an “It’s OK to Talk About P.E.O.” campaign, seeking to raise the public profile of the organization while maintaining its traditions of secrecy. Before then, the organization's avoidance of publicity, and the secrecy of their name, caused it to be considered it a "secret society'.

At her Initiation, the PEO star is lent to each member as long as she is an active member of a chapter. A member may have filled out “The PEO Wish” indicating whether she wishes the emblem to be buried with her. Her Chapter President should have a copy of her wish. If it is not buried with the member, the emblem should be returned to her or the Supreme Chapter.

Lulu Corkhill (C1854-1935) the daughter of a Methodist minister, was not one of the seven founders of PEO but was initiated in March 1869, just a few weeks after the PEO Society, as the Sisterhood was then called, was formed. She was 14 at the time. Some 40 years later in 1909, as President, Lulu, then known as Mrs Williams, “urged that every individual member be encouraged to commit to memory every word of the ritual, which officers were required to learn.”


Like the “secrets” of Freemasonry, we should not get bogged down in what the PEO acronym stands for but rather examine what it represents in the context of a clear value system emphasising mutual support, education and excellence in academia and leadership. That said, like the Order of the Eastern Star (OES) is amusingly known by some as the Order of the Eating Sisters, so PEO has its “Papa’s Eating Out’ and the more benign “Phone each other regularly.”

One of the pioneer societies for women, it grew from a small campus friendship society to include women off campus and evolved into a community based national sorority empowering woman through education and shared values. This is different from other University Sororities who’s meeting and activates take place on campus, just like their fraternal counterparts also having an on-campus focus – collectively such groups are known as Greek letter organizations (GLOs). PEO seems different from these campus groups. In 1883 local chapters of the PEO founded a "Supreme Chapter" to coordinate the Sisterhood on a national level. The first international chapter opened in Canada in 1911, but it seems restricted to these two countries. Unfortunately, PEO Executive Office advises that there are no PEO Chapters in Australia.

Today, PEO has grown from that small membership of seven to almost a quarter of a million members in chapters in the United States and Canada. The PEO Sisterhood is passionate about its mission: promoting educational opportunities for women. The sisterhood proudly makes a difference in women's lives with six philanthropies that include ownership of Cottey College in Missouri, a non-sectarian women’s college, and five other philanthropies that provide higher educational assistance which include the PEO Educational Loan Fund, PEO International Peace Scholarship Fund, PEO Program for Continuing Education, PEO Scholar Awards, and PEO STAR Scholarship.

Cottey College’s original name was Vernon Seminary reflecting the schools location; in Nevada, a city of Vernon County Missouri. In 1886 the school's name was officially changed to "Cottey College," no doubt reflecting a report in Nevada’s Daily Mail Newspaper “The institution in which the city (Nevada) takes the most solid pride is ... Vernon Seminary. The entire city insists upon calling it Cottey College“. The school was founded by Virginia Alice Cottey Stockard (1848-1940) in 1884 with “the firm belief that women deserved the same quality education as men”. Known as Alice, nine years before in 1875, she had accepted a teaching position at Central College at Lexington Missouri, partly to be near her favourite sister Dora who suggested Alice start her own school. "Allie you're thirty-six years old, you have the best mind and the best education of any woman I know... All of your life, you've wanted to have a school of your own and if you don't start one very soon, you will never do it. Mary and I've been talking and we have nearly as much money between us as you have. We want to lend it to you and we want to be teachers in your school.” That week, several letters were sent out to most of the ministers in Southern Methodist churches. Alice had a strong Christian faith and when several locations were offered for her school she told her sister, "Dora, I think this is the place for us. This has come to us entirely through a church. I believe this is what God intends us to take, but we must hurry. Let us pray.”

Virginia Alice Cottey Stockard PEO

Facilitated by a Methodist Pastor, the school was founded with a land grant from the Nevada city, and at their invitation. Alice had $3,000 saved, and her sisters and fellow teachers, Dora and Mary, lent her nearly $3,000 of their own savings to begin her school. It was not easy, in an interview in 1909 having survived competition and financial crisis’s, a journalist asked ‘ "You've never done things the easy way, have you?” Mrs. Stockard (nee Cotty) then in her sixty-first year, thought a moment, and replied, "I no longer look for easy tasks; I try to accomplish the hard ones well, and soon find they become easy." It is fitting that Cotty College was founded by the efforts of three teaching sisters and would later become owned by the PEO Sisterhood. Below is how that happened.

In 1926 Virginia Alice Cottey Stockard’s school had been thriving for 42 years, Alice was invited to join a chapter of the P.E.O. Sisterhood. At 78 years of age, she initially felt she was too old to become a new member but was initiated into Missouri’s Chapter DW in March 1926. When she became a member of the PEO Sisterhood, Alice realized that PEO paralleled her own goals and ideas about higher education for women. In 1927, the PEO Sisterhood accepted Cottey College as a gift from Alice. This made Cottey College the only non-sectarian college owned and supported by women.

Cottey College“. The school was founded by Virginia Alice Cottey Stockard (1848-1940)

Above, one of the buildings at Cottey College

Like many other single sex organisations PEO has an auxiliary for spouses. Husbands and “significant others”, are referred to as “B.I.L.s”, spelled out as Brothers-In-Law (or some prefer Brothers In Love). Once or twice a year men are included in a social event or family outing. Bess Truman is the only First Lady who was a member of the PEO Sisterhood. Her husband, President Harry Truman was considered a BIL.

Lulu Corkhill (C1854-1935)

Note the PEO Star in Lulu's hair

Photo Source is here

The detailed symbolism of the Sisterhood, should it even exist, is not known, save the star and flower. The Sisterhood's official flower is the marguerite, and you will see this flower in their logos and materials, but perhaps the star is the most recognisable PEO symbol. Much like a square and compass does for Freemasons, the flower and star helps assist in identifying members. For instance there is a photo of Lulu Corkhill, mentioned above, as a young girl with a PEO star in her hair.

Again, I quote from Fran Becque on Lulu: “She later wrote, “You will see by the picture taken the year following my initiation, how childish and immature I was when I became a P.E.O. You would need no other proof of my youth than is shown in the picture, in the rubber comb I wore about my head and the P.E.O. star pinned to it. Today I am wearing that same star on the back of which is engraved Corkhill ’69.”

She also said of those first meetings in Mount Pleasant, “Everything was of such vast importance, everything was so secret. When and where we held our meetings were of as much secrecy as was our oath. And for revealing an officer’s name – that would have been an offense worthy of expulsion. As I look back I can but smile as I recall how careful we were to go down side streets and double on our tracks, and separate ourselves into groups of one as we neared the place of meeting, lest any idle onlooker should detect more than one girl going into a house on the same afternoon and should guess that the P.E.O.s were having a meeting.””

PEOs meetings remain secretive. Recent posts on social media talk of husbands being asked to leave their home during them. One post on from a “BIL” describes “They actually had one at our house in our basement. I was banished to the upstairs during the meeting but I could hear some things. Mostly it involved laughing and giggling.” (Then tongue in cheek) “I am sure it was brought about by some nefarious means.”

On the same page “The only requirement for membership is to believe in God and, although the group is thought to be primarily Protestant, all religions are accepted. Historically, the primary reason for "secrecy" was that the members seek to do their good works without regard to publicity or other public recognition.”

Chapters are named with letters, hence “Chapter A” would be the oldest and Chapter CF would be more recent. I’ll close with a quote from Judy Verdine, a 39-year member of PEO Chapter CD and a Past State P.E.O. president. “We raise funds to help local girls continue their education. That’s what P.E.O. is all about - women helping women”.